Cassam Uteem, GCSK

President of the Republic (1992-2002)

 It is with a feeling of deep sorrow that we learnt of the passing of Sri Atal Bihari Vajpayee, former Prime Minister of the Republic of India, on the 16th August 2018, at the All India Institute of Medical Sciences Hospital, Delhi after a period of prolonged illness. While the world continues to pay tribute to the veteran politician and great statesman that he was, India and friends of India are still mourning the loss of an outstanding and inspirational patriotic leader, aptly described as the ‘gentle giant’ of Indian politics. Excellent orator, famously known for his flowery and poetic discourse characterised by dramatic pauses that often kept his audience spell-bound and in expectation, Sri Vajpayee was a great humanist besides being a seasoned politician.

Although a long-time member of Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS) and founding father of Jan Sangh, harbinger of the BJP – all political movements associated with extreme Hindu nationalist views – Atal Bihari Vajpayee was known for his measured stand on many national and international issues. Senior Congress leader P Chidambaram describes him as someone who “resolutely anchored the BJP close to the middle and did not allow the party to swing to the extreme right of the political spectrum.” Sri Vajpayee even openly and publicly expressed disagreement with his party on several issues the most notable one being the demolition of the Babri Masjid, which he unreservedly condemned. His non-partisan, consensual and non-confrontational approach earned him the appreciation and respect of all political parties in India.

He was known to adopt principled stands on international issues. For instance, when Iraq was invaded by the United States forces and India was under severe pressure to join the coalition forces, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, then India’s Prime Minister, resisted the US disguised threat and obtained the Lok Sabha’s unanimous support for his decision of not involving India in the war in Iraq. He also showed genuine interest in establishing normal relations with his neighbours and took the unprecedented initiative for peace with Pakistan by undertaking a bus trip to that country for the SAARC meeting. It is a pity that his initiative turned out to be a one-off step on the way to peace in the Indo-Pakistan sub continent. The recent election that brought a new leadership in Pakistan offers hope for renewing with Sri Vajpayee’s vision of normalcy between the two neighbouring nations that have so much in common in terms of history, art and culture.

I had the privilege of meeting Sri Vajpayee on several occasions. During his visit to Mauritius in the seventy’s, as Indian Foreign Affairs’ Minister, I had the honour of receiving him, along with other Municipal Councillors, at the Municipality of Port Louis. It was at his behest that steps were later taken to have the city of Port Louis twinned with that of Delhi – a decision that, for reasons unknown, was never pursued, in spite of a motion passed by the Municipal Council to that effect.

I was to meet him again when I was on official visit to India in 1998 and I was given to witness his great magnanimity towards me. He was then the Leader of the Opposition and on learning that, accompanied by my family, I was to visit the home village of my ancestors in Azamgarh, in the state of Uttar Pradesh, he personally phoned the Chief Minister of that state, who was a member of his party, the BJP, and urged him to leave the campaign he was engaged in to receive me in the state capital Lucknow, which he did and together with the Governor of the State, offered all possible assistance to ensure our onward journey was safe, smooth and without any incident.

Towards the end of my term of office as Head of State of Mauritius, I had the rare privilege of being invited as guest of Honour to the Indian Republic day celebrations in January 2002 by none other than Sri Atal Bihari Vajpayee himself who, by then, was occupying the high office of the Prime Minister of India. A few weeks preceding my visit to India, on the 13th December 2001, the Lok Sabha was the target of terrorist attacks that resulted in several casualties and a total disruption of life in Delhi and only 3 days before Republic day, celebrated on the 26th of January, a terrorist attack on the American Cultural Centre in Kolkata took place during which 5 policemen were killed and several people injured.

 

In a situation where the whole of India was in a state of high alert on the eve of the commemoration of Republic Day when exceptional security measures were being additionally taken and troops deployed all over the country and when even important changes to the programme for that special event were being envisaged, I thought I would let the Government of India know that I would not wish to add on to their worries and was prepared to cancel my visit. The reply from the Indian Prime Minister’s Office came straight away: It’s out of question. The invitation was maintained as well as the programme scheduled for the visit of the President of Mauritius and that included a meeting with Prime Minister Vajpayee and a banquet offered by the latter. In the middle of the turbulence and turmoil his country was going through, the poise and composure of the Prime Minister were simply remarkable.

 

Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s first Prime Minister of Independent India, after listening to the speech in Lok Sabha of Atal Bihari Vajpayee, is reported to have observed that the then new parliamentarian was made of prime ministerial stuff. More than an observation, Nehru’s reflection proved to be a prophecy. Atal Bihari Vajpayee became the Prime Minister of India on three different occasions leaving a rich legacy to his country and an indelible impression of a very genuine person, a real gentleman and a true statesman on all those who happened to meet him.

 

20th August 2018